Sometimes a sword is only a sword…

November 7, 2007

King Abdullah and Pope Benedict at the Vatican, Nov. 6, 2007Sigmund Freud is said to have told a student who over-interpreted his smoking habits: “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”*

The quote came to mind when the Vatican announced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had presented Pope Benedict with a jewel-studded golden sword during their historic meeting. Didn’t the Prophet Mohammad have a sword, the one on display at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul? Doesn’t the Saudi flag have a sword on it? And didn’t the pope refer to Islam being “spread by the sword” in his Regensburg speech, sparking off protests around the Muslim world?

This was the first meeting between a Supreme Pontiff and a Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Was Abdullah taking the opportunity to send some kind of message?

Anybody covering religion knows questions like this will pop up in readers’ minds and bounce around in the blogosphere. So as soon as we heard the news, there was a flurry of instant messages between our Rome, Paris and Riyadh bureaus. We had to give some explanation for why the king should give such a gift.

Riyadh correspondent Andrew Hammond was quick to set things straight. “It’s just a Bedouin custom,” he IMed back. “They give them to foreign vistors to Saudi who they respect. It’s a mark of respect in Bedouin tribal terms.” And that’s what Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella wrote in his report.

So sometimes a sword is only a sword.

Check out the video:

* When I went to look up the source for this famous Freud quote, I found this entry in the FAQ of the Freud Museum in London: “Where did Freud say, “Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.”? If you know the answer to this one, please let us know because we have no idea…”

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